After living in Zhengzhou for nine months, I finally decided to see the “other China.’’
I’m referring to Taiwan, which broke away from the mainland in 1949 following China’s civil war.
Taiwan, officially known as the Republic of China, is a modern, democratic country with an advanced capitalist economy. It’s an island nation that’s roughly the size of Switzerland, located about 110 miles off the mainland’s southeast coast.
Though Taiwan still claims to be the legitimate government of China, including the mainland, it’s strictly a symbolic position. In reality, the larger and more powerful People’s Republic of China on the Communist mainland is recognized throughout the world as the real China.
I took a 2½-flight to Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, for the start of a four-day visit during a break from my university classes. My plane was packed with Chinese tourists who kept snapping cell-phone photos in the cabin, including a lot of selfies, until we took off. (Chinese passengers rarely obey instructions to turn off their phones before takeoff despite repeated reminders from flight attendants.)
After arriving at Taipei’s international airport, I took a bus to a downtown hotel where I had arranged to start an afternoon tour of the city. I expected to be part of a group bus tour, but it turned out I was the only one who signed up, so I got a private guide and a private driver who chauffeured me around in a comfortable sedan.
Before starting my tour, I stopped at a coffee shop to grab a quick lunch. I began talking to the guy in front of me at the cash register and learned he grew up a few miles from me in suburban Philadelphia. He’s a former chiropractor who is now working as a writer and editor in Taiwan, which is the kind of career transformation you often encounter with expats in this part of the world.
My tour guide, Jack, was a 69-year-old horticulturist who retired 12 years ago and now works part time showing tourists around Taiwan. He spent a year living on U.S. farms in 1965 as part of an agricultural exchange program, but still speaks English with a heavy Chinese accent. Jack didn’t need to take any lessons to become a tour guide because he’s a walking encyclopedia of Taiwanese history and culture.
After driving past the Presidential Office Building and the iconic Red House, a former public market that is a now a popular shopping and performing arts center, we made our first stop at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Opened in 1980, it was built to honor the late military and political leader who fled to Taiwan and established a government-in-exile after his nationalist forces were defeated by Chairman Mao’s Communist army.
The hall, which has an octagonal roof covered with blue glazed tiles, is part of a large plaza and park complex that includes the National Theater and National Concert Hall. Jack told me it was once the site of barracks and basketball courts.
After walking up 89 steps – one for each year of Chiang’s life — you walk into a huge hall with white marble walls. In the middle is a towering bronze statue of Chiang, seated in a chair wearing his standard military uniform. The steps, the hall and the statue reminded me of the Lincoln Memorial, though there were no great speeches by Chiang engraved in the walls.
We watched the changing-of-the-guards ceremony that takes place hourly in front of the statue. Like similar ceremonies I’ve witnessed in the U.S. and other countries, the soldiers displayed the precision of a ballet dancer and countenance of an undertaker.
We then toured the rest of the memorial, including a replica of Chiang’s presidential office where the clock always reads 11:50 p.m. – the time that he died on April 5, 1975. We also saw photos of Chiang with U.S. presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, plus two bulletproof black Cadillac limos that he rode in. Chiang needed tight security because he was a divisive figure in Taiwan. Hailed by some as a nationalist hero, he was also a brutal dictator who imposed martial law and persecuted his enemies during a period known as the “White Terror.”
We later stopped at the Martyrs’ Shrine, which honors soldiers who died fighting Mao’s Communists in the civil war, the Japanese in World War II and other enemies. Japan ruled Taiwan from 1895 to 1945, and that influence is still apparent. While the Taiwanese obviously resented rule by a colonial power, they acknowledge that the Japanese modernized the island’s education, transportation and health systems.
At one point we drove down a road nicknamed Book Street, which was once lined with small bookshops. Big chain stores and the rise of the Internet have driven most of the old mom-and-pop operations out of business. “Young people read Facebook,” Jack explained, snaking his head in disapproval.
Our next stop was a Tao/Buddhist temple where worshippers burn paper money so the deceased, in Jack’s words, “can spend it in heaven.’’ Visitors also pay to have their names attached to a figurine of Laozi, the legendary founder of Taoism. It’s supposed to bring them good luck for a year. Actually, I think burning money makes more sense.
We then drove to the National Palace Museum, which contains about 700,000 ancient artifacts that Chiang managed to smuggle out of mainland China before the Communists took over in 1949. It’s an astonishing collection that includes furniture, paintings, tools, books, calligraphy and pottery. Among the highlights are the jade carvings (including one of a grasshopper crawling on a cabbage plant), a miniature nine-story ivory pagoda, and decorative cups made from rhinoceros horns.
The museum is surrounded by lush green hills dotted with homes that seem to be suspended in the air. It’s been raining all week in Taipei, so all the flowers and trees are in full bloom.
Following my tour, I took the subway to my bed-and-breakfast inn in the Beitou district of Taipei, which is famous for its hot springs and spas. I plan to try one, though I’m told I might need nose plugs to block out the sulfuric smell of the mineral water.